The Fountainhead

Man, where to start with this thing…

If you haven’t read it, The Fountainhead is about Howard Roark, an architect who spends 800 or so interminable pages pitting his genius and individualism against the forces of mediocrity and collectivism. I’d go into details, but really that’s about it.

As a book, it was deeply flawed.

First off, every single character of any importance is a complete sociopath. Occasionally they’ll use phrases like “love”, but whatever is being described doesn’t seem to be an emotion in the conventional sense but more like an outward expression of some kind of ethical premise.

There’s no actual dialog in here. No real human talks like any of these people. Nobody ever sounds tired or angry or misspeaks in any way. Everyone makes the most meticulously-calibrated statements, and you end up with two characters taking turns reciting essay-length disquisitions for 20 pages or so.

And those are the Important People. The unimportant people are barely two-dimensional. Comic book villains’ henchmen have more depth of character than most secondary characters. It’s clear that Rand has no use for any of those people. It’s also clear that those people constitute about 99.999997% of the world’s population.

Things get even worse when society at large is being described. Basically you take these flat non-entities and… now there’s a bunch of them. That’s not how society works. A big group of people, even dull people, take on a character of its own, with its own logic and its own decision-making. It’s the difference between a bee and a swarm.

But not in the world of The Fountainhead. In that world, it’s just a collection of non-people who suddenly start doing things because Someone Important made them do it.

I suppose some of this is inevitable. There are two goals for this book at odds with each other: tell a story and send a message. You can’t do both of those things well. Thus in any situation where she could add a bit of reality or make the message more explicit, Rand chose the message every time.

Real people, even heroes, are fallible. They act petty and hold grudges, they lose their temper and do something dumb. Sometimes when they do the right thing, it’s all for really bad reasons.

But not in The Fountainhead. Everyone here is either purely noble or purely a scoundrel, or alternates between the two extremes based on having made some Important Decision. People just take some kind of moral stand and everything they do proceeds logically and unwaveringly from that stand.

Real people don’t work like that. But describing real people would dilute the impact of the message Rand’s trying to send, so that all took a back seat.

An interesting — and kind of unsettling — alternative theory is that Ayn Rand really might not have known that what she was describing was not reality. Perhaps she was herself a cold-blooded, calculating sociopath and she figured everyone was like that, and nobody was ever motivated by anything but personal convictions and trade-offs and compromises didn’t really exist.

On top of all that, there’s a problem with her conception of how human progress works. The message in this book is that all progress everywhere, 100% of the time, is the result of larger-than-life genius individuals working, not for money or status, but for love for the work they’re doing.

Certainly there have been eccentric monomaniacs who picked up the football of human understanding and ran down the field with it. The Isaac Newtons, for instance.

But usually progress is messy. Even messier than how real people work. There’s no one person who’s going to reinvent architecture from the ground up. Most new ideas are bad ones. There’s often a very good reason people keep doing the same thing they’ve always done and there’s no shame in continuing to do it that way. This doesn’t make you a “second-hander”, it makes you not an idiot.

In reality, progress comes from all over the place. Sometimes it’s diligent hard work. Sometimes it’s a moment of inspiration. Sometimes it’s tinkerers discovering something when trying to solve a completely unrelated problem, and their solution is stumbled upon years later after being overlooked by everyone else.

If you’re lucky, you might move the football a couple of inches forward in your life. Most people do nothing with it. Some people inadvertently move it backwards.

Sometimes it actually does work out like in the book. Someone comes along, looks at the problem differently, and points out things that could work better, and the good people of the world celebrate.

Although by celebrating the visionaries, you end up enticing people to the field who are in it for the prestige and not out of love. This is not to say that you can’t contribute to human understanding because you want prestige, or wealth, or to have chicks dig you, but that’s not what the book would have us believe.

That said, I like the message, mostly. There’s a lot to appeal to it. The idea that you have value as a person, that you should follow your vision and not let people’s criticism get to you. However, not caring about criticism doesn’t entail also not having the slightest bit of interest in the fate of anyone but yourself.

I’m sure this is an easy philosophy to hold when, as I noted above, you are clueless about and have no use for 99.999997% of actual people. Personally, I like people and I find that part a bit distasteful.

Even from a utilitarian standpoint, this doesn’t make sense. If not for the Common Man, who, exactly, does Ayn Rand think is going to drive rivets and pour concrete for Howard Roark’s buildings? Some noble genius slumming it because he can’t find a job in this unjust society? (Actually, my answer is “robots will do it”, but I’m 70 years in the future. I don’t think she had automation in mind.)

In typical Rand fashion, there are two — and only two — alternatives for society. Either total individualism and total celebration of genius for its own sake and the average person can go pound sand. Or total collectivism, total celebration of mediocrity and the individual and the genius can go pound sand. I suspect there might be another alternative that doesn’t entail every genius having a moral obligation to be an utter sociopath.

Rand’s philosophy entails a fundamental denial of a huge component of human nature. Pure individualism is just not natural. Humans are social animals. The world we evolved in was very difficult. Ten thousand years ago an individualist, unconcerned with what anyone else thought of them, would have been booted out of the tribe and been eaten by jackals within a day or two.

*****

Any book like this has to be thought of in terms of its place in history, since it’s an element of its time and place.

To some extent I’m probably being too hard on Rand’s characters. The people in the early 20th century had a strength of character that is almost completely missing from people today. The idea of a Howard Roark, making a decision about how he wanted to live his life and living it whatever the consequences, probably wouldn’t have seemed as implausible in her time as it does to me.

(Ironically enough, this kind of internal fortitude was greatly undermined by the self-esteem movement, which started in the 60s and based in large part upon the work of… Ayn Rand. But that’s a whole other blog post.)

At the time of its writing, the ideas of collectivism were on the upswing and the individual was under assault. There really were Ellsworth Tooheys walking the earth, although none of them were quite the cartoonish super-villain depicted there. Read some Upton Sinclair to get a flavor. Just mentally make all the good guys into bad guys and vice versa.

To the extent this book helped fight off the Ellsworth Tooheys of the world, it’s to be commended, though the victory of the individual has been far from an unmitigated boon for mankind. Most people who express their individuality don’t end up unleashing their inner Howard Roark, they just end up being a complete asshole to everyone around them.

Then there’s the damage done to architecture. The premise of the book is that Howard Roark is a genius whose vision was so incisive and clear that he felt no need to be constrained by the conventions of the past. Because he was a genius.

The problem is that, for the next thirty years after this book came out, all the people who passed through Architecture school thought they were the next Howard Roark. Thus anything built before their graduation date was useless garbage to be swept away to make room for their vision.

Unfortunately, most architects are average, and the average architect is not Howard Roark. So every time you pass a mid-60s-era eyesore that was once a majestic art deco building from the 20s, you can thank Ayn Rand. Or — more likely — a parking lot that was once a mid-60s-era eyesore that was once a majestic art deco building from the 20s.

As an aside, the work architects did in the 20s and 30s was often amazing. It was really a high-point in American civilization. Walk around downtown Detroit sometime and you’ll see it. Reading this, I was continually irritated at the suggestion that the only good architect at the time was fictitious.

With all that said, it was interesting and I’m glad I slogged through it. I’d just suggest, if you’re going to read it, to consider it as some variety of morality play. Try not try to make these characters into real people, but more as the personification of Genius or Mediocrity or Power-seeking.

Leaving Detroit

The family has departed Detroit. I was going to add “for good”, but who knows what life is going to bring our way? Although life would have to bring something really shocking and unexpected for that to happen.

The fact is, Detroit is the most depressing place in America. I think everyone already knows this, but let me assure you that Detroit is even more depressing than you think it is. It is fractally depressing. You can find something that seems depressing about the place, focus in on it, and find new contours and textures of hopeless, inconsolable sadness.

*****

The reason Detroit is so depressing is not just because the city is ruined. Although that obviously doesn’t help. It’s the gap between what it was and what it is today, between its past glory and its current state. Ironically enough, I think the fact that the city of Detroit is such a wreck makes it less depressing, since there’s so little left of it that seeing its past greatness takes quite a bit of imagination. The real sadness is in the suburbs.

For me, the most depressing place in Detroit is my old workplace, the GM Technical Center in the suburb of Warren. Not that the place isn’t beautiful. It is beautiful. It’s breathtaking. It really was a joy for me to go to work there.

The Technical Center was designed by the great Eero Saarinen, the guy who designed the St. Louis Arch among dozens of other works of utter genius.

This place was completed in 1958. It’s the prototype for every office park that came after it for the next 50 years. It’s immaculately maintained, with luxurious manicured lawns and a large reflecting pool, and a large stainless steel water tower that I marveled at every time I drove by it.

The part that really made the place was the colored bricks, with one wall being a bright blue or teal or yellow, which made the place come to life.

The place looks like it could be on the cover of a pulp science fiction novel from the mid-20th century. Which made it easy to see how things looked from the perspective of people in the mid-20th century. Like these people. People who dreamed big.

According to my detailed analysis, this country peaked two years after the tech center opened, in 1960, not at all coincidentally the year from the first season of Mad Men. The people who ran things then were giants. They built the most amazing civilization that’s ever existed.

(I have many theories as to why this is. My latest theory has something to do with farming in early 20th century America producing a massive amount of human capital for its participants. Once farming got mechanized, all those people took their problem-solving skills and work ethic to the cities and the factories and did amazing things.)

There was really no challenge these people weren’t willing to throw themselves at. The Reds launch Sputnik? We’ll see you and raise you a trip to the moon. How do you like that, Commies?

They also created the greatest company in the history of all time, whose technical center I was working at. These people hammered sheets of metal into works of art for everyone, that you could climb into and go wherever your imagination took you.

Then at some point, it all fell apart. The company that made this and this started making this. And who can forget this guy?

The company of Alfred Sloan and Harley Earl has become the company of… I was going to name the people currently running the place, but anyone I named would be an utter nonentity in comparison. Those guys were titans with a level of competence that just doesn’t exist in this country any more.

Now all that’s left is the awesome buildings. But when you consider what’s become of the company and the products they’re putting out, it’s like it’s like when a five year old puts on his dad’s suit coat and pretends to be a grown-up. Sorry, son. The clothes don’t make the man, and even if they did, those clothes don’t fit you. At all.

The giants from the mid-20th century, whose energy and industry shook the world, are long gone. In their place is their grandchildren. My generation, whose biggest concern is not with creating things and accomplishing anything but with consuming things and congratulating themselves on social media for being so amazing and special.

Our grandparents gave themselves awards for building the Alaskan Pipeline and designing the 1953 Corvette. My generation got trophies for participation.

What’s even sadder, though, is that everything wrong with Detroit is also wrong with America. It’s just really obvious in Detroit. All Detroit has is the past, so they shine the spotlight on it.

Ultimately, the biggest difference is that in Detroit, the buildings are still there. Detroit is where they they invented sprawl. If they want to build something new, they just move on down the highway.

Everywhere else in America, they paved over the past, bulldozed it to put up a strip mall. So they have the benefit of not knowing what they left behind.

*****

Or the buildings are there for now.

On our way out of town, we drove by a scrap metal dealer. Rusty steel piled in heaps several stories high. And all this scrap was coming from the buildings, from the city itself. The scrappers are dismantling the city of Detroit, piece by piece, and selling it off.

All this activity is driven by the voracious appetite for resources in Asia, to feed the ongoing construction boom. And right now, somewhere in Shanghai, people are driving on an overpass made out of recycled I-beams from a long-shuttered Dodge factory. And someone in Singapore just turned on the lights, with copper wire that was once house plumbing on the west side.

People often ask if I think Detroit will ever come back. I suppose it’s possible the people of who run Detroit will get their act together long enough to create and sustain a renaissance. I’m just wondering how long until there’s nothing left of the place.

Whole 30

So, this month I decided to do Whole 30. It’s the final day and I thought I’d tell you about it.

You can read all about how Whole30 works here. Basically it’s like Paleo Lent. If you’re doing Paleo (which I kind of do), it’s 30 days of focused, determined effort to do everything right.

There’s really not a lot to it. Essentially, you avoid eating the following:

  • Anything sweetened. This includes artificial sweeteners, and natural sweeteners like honey
  • Alcohol
  • Grains – wheat, corn, rice, millet, all that stuff
  • Legumes – beans, peas, peanuts.
  • White potatoes, although sweet potatoes are fine (and I had a lot of them!)
  • Dairy

Also, you’re supposed to avoid processed food in general (assuming you can find anything processed that also doesn’t have anything in the above list). And no making fake Paleo versions of non-Paleo foods. Like muffins made with coconut flour or whatever.

Overall, I did pretty well. If I were grading myself, I’d give me a 97%. The only slip-ups I had were a visit to a barbecue place and a cookout. I didn’t eat anything obviously off the list, like cheesecake, but adopted a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy on the full ingredient list.

A few times I had some sweet potato chips. Kind of violates the spirit of the thing, but I needed something other than popcorn to munch on while watching the thrilling final episodes of Breaking Bad.

This wasn’t nearly as much of a struggle for me as it might be for other people, since I don’t drink and I pretty much eat like this about 70%-80% of the time. Although it was a struggle. As I got started, I realized how much I cheat. Like there are no circumstances where I should ever be eating pizza. And I rarely suggest to everyone that we go get some pizza. Except that if it’s there or someone else suggests it, I would probably eat it. And regret it shortly after that.

So I spent the first two weeks wanting junk food all the time. I would drive by a sports bar and imagine getting an order of those horrible nachos they serve there. It was pure withdrawal pangs, which implies I was eating a lot more junk food that I realized.

By the time I finished Week 2, I stopped craving cheese fries with chili and bacon bits. Granted, I would have preferred cheese fries to whatever sort of rabbit food I was eating, but it wasn’t much of a fight. And by the end of Week 3, I could finally finish a meal without a feeling of emptiness and longing.

Anyway, now that it’s almost over, I can say it’s been a success. I lost 7 lbs as of this morning, and more importantly, I lost most of from the midsection, exactly where I would have liked to lose weight from.

I feel a lot better. I have more energy and I’ve noticed some achy joints that aren’t achy any more. My mood has improved dramatically. This is probably the biggest benefit. I know especially when I eat something with wheat gluten, I get really short-tempered and moody.

If you’re wondering if I’d recommend you try this out yourself, the answer is yes. It’s only 30 days, and while the first week or two seemed to drag on and on, the last week was really easy. You’re almost certainly eating something that’s ruinous to your health and you won’t believe how good you could feel unless you stop eating it.

However, I’m a believer in the Pareto Principle which states that 80% of the effect comes from 20% of the effort. I was thinking about how I might do a Pareto-ized Whole30, where you could reap the most benefit with the least inner turmoil.

Here’s my theory. I would be interested to hear if anyone actually tried these to hear how it worked for them:

Give up all sweetened beverages. Natural or artificial sweeteners. There aren’t many desserts that have more sugar in them than a Big Gulp of Dr. Pepper.

No eating in restaurants. Prepare all your food yourself. There are exceptions of course, but there’s almost nothing you would make for yourself that would be more fattening that anything you can get at a restaurant.

I would guess that if most people in America did those two things, they would probably lose about five pounds in 30 days. Maybe more, depending on how often they eat out or how much Diet Pepsi they drink.

And if you’re already eating pretty healthy, dig through the Whole30 program and pick out a couple of things to try. Personally, I would recommend the alcohol. I’m certainly not one of those types who thinks nobody should ever drink, but alcohol has a ton of calories and you tend to make questionable eating choices when you’ve been drinking. So if you’re going to focus on healthy eating, that’s one way to do it.

And remember that it’s only 30 days, which is way less time than you’d think!

The Claw

The whole crew was at Steak and Shake. Yes, all six of us. Charlie had noticed the claw game on our way in. You know the one, where you put in a dollar and the world’s weakest claw drops down and limply closes around a stuffed toy and then raises back up without picking up anything.

Charlie spent the meal obsessing about it. He was convinced there was nothing to it but put your dollar in and the claw goes and grabs a toy (or “stuffy” as he was calling it).

The Mrs. and I in turn tried to manage his expectations as well as we could. “Nobody ever wins those games”, we said. “You put a dollar in, but the claw won’t actually pick up anything.” But, in the interest of peace and quiet, I said he and Gus could play the claw game once each if he would stop asking about it and eat most of his dinner.

He actually cleaned his plate. And as we’re leaving, he ran over and I put the dollar in the machine. Charlie went to work moving the claw, not really looking where the thing was and then slapped the big red button. The claw went down and came up and… there was a stuffy attached! A big Yosemite Sam!

He was jumping around and I was jumping around even more. How much was I jumping? About as much as when that David Fries hit sailed over the head of Nelson Cruz in the ninth inning of Game 6 of the World Series*. I was that excited.

But almost immediately I figured out that this was not a triumph. It was a total disaster.

So Gus gets his turn, and of course, he doesn’t get a stuffy like Charlie did. So he starts crying. And Charlie is convinced that he’s got the game figured out, so he’s saying “Well, dad, why don’t you give me a dollar and I’ll get him a stuffy!” Having just won the stupid thing, I can’t convince him about the odds. As far as he’s convinced, he wins 100% of the time.

It was a moot point anyway since I was out of cash. So we went home. I did manage to extract a promise from Charlie to share the stuffy with Gus for the ride home.

And now, every time Charlie sees one of those claw games, he’s going to be demanding to play again, so he can win yet another stuffy.

* Feel free to watch the video again if you want to really grasp how excited I was. Ah, Game 6! I really never get tired of watching that!

A Call for Sympathy

So obesity was in the news recently, although I was a bit distracted by something or other. Specifically this guy.

There’s something about obesity that bring out everyone’s inner Puritan. And by “Puritan”, I don’t mean “prude”. I mean if you poke around at people’s opinions about people being overweight, as far as they’re concerned, people aren’t overweight because of anything wrong with their metabolism or their endocrine system. It’s just a matter of people lacking character and moral fiber.

Addiction is another subject that brings out people’s inner Puritan. Alcoholics, drug addicts, gamblers, these people just need to stop with their destructive behavior!

Now obviously this is true and ultimately this would solve all their problems. But if it were just a simple matter of stopping, every bar and casino in America would go bankrupt within weeks of opening.

Every time I hear about obese people lacking willpower, I think of a friend of mine, whom we’ll call Rufus. Back in my woefully misspent youth, I smoked. I could quit smoking for a few days, a week, sometimes even a month or so. But if I had even one cigarette, all my hard work quitting would be for naught and next thing you know, I’m buying a carton.

Rufus wasn’t like that. He was the classic “social smoker”. We’d go watch a basketball game and he’d show up with a pack of cigarettes. He’d smoke maybe 9 of them and on the way out he’d toss me the rest of the pack. And he probably wouldn’t smoke again until the next time he went out.

As it happens, Rufus was at least 100 lbs. overweight. According to most people’s notions, Rufus must lack willpower. Come on, Rufus! Just lay off the carbs, man!

But what about the cigarettes? When I quit smoking, it was brutal. It took me an amazing amount of grit and determination to make it through the withdrawal. I could never just smoke every week or two and go without the rest of the time.

So did Rufus just have a vast reservoir of willpower to keep him from smoking between those rare occasions he went out? Maybe he used up all his willpower on not smoking and was therefore helpless when dinnertime rolled around.

Or maybe we’ve got the wrong idea about “willpower”. Maybe the answer is that nicotine just does something to my brain that it doesn’t do to Rufus’s brain. So while quitting smoking was a tremendous struggle for me, for Rufus it was no more of a struggle than not watching a fifth consecutive episode of Downton Abbey.

And maybe it’s the opposite with the Doritos Locos taco, where it’s doing something to his brain that it’s not doing to mine. Actually, I gave up Taco Bell cold turkey a few years ago as part of a larger effort to get my diet under control. I suspect our brains aren’t too far off on that one.

And that’s the thing. I have, at some point or another, quit smoking, drinking, and junk food. Quitting junk food felt exactly like quitting smoking and drinking. It was only a difference of degree, not of kind, with junk food being harder to quit than drinking and way easier than smoking.

You can look at anything addictive and see the same thing in effect. On the very rare occasions I play blackjack, I’ll see that one guy. You know, the guy whom all the dealers know by name. And whether he gets a blackjack or he splits his eights and goes bust twice, something is happening in his brain that isn’t happening inside my brain.

I have known several people who have tried cocaine. Some of them tried it once and never tried it again. Some of them tried it and turned into Charlie Sheen. Most fell somewhere in the middle.

(By the way, I’ve never tried it myself, but if my ridiculous caffeine addiction is anything to go by, I would probably be a lot closer to Charlie Sheen. Again, not anything about willpower, that’s just how my brain reacts to stimulants.)

Everyone is Puritanical about any addictive substance they don’t have a problem with. But with overweight people especially, the non-overweight just casually assume they just need to stop eating so much. Like that’s all there is to it.

Well, the Puritans are right to some extent. Ultimately, if you want to quit something, or if you want to lose weight, you need the discipline to say “no” to yourself constantly. In other words, you need willpower. It’s just that the Puritans tend to underestimate the amount of willpower that’s required for anyone but themselves.

Just telling someone who’s obese to eat less, or eat fewer carbs, is almost entirely unhelpful. First of all, it’s not news to anyone. Second, it massively understates the problem. It’s like telling a ten-year-old kid in one of the rougher parts of Detroit that he can be a millionaire if he just spends less money than he earns. Mathematically that’s true. But his situation is probably so complicated that your “advice” is useless.

So my point, to the extent I have one, is that people should stop being assholes about other people being overweight. Or other people’s addictions. And think about your own weaknesses before you go looking down your noses at other people. Unless you’re one of those people who never has to struggle with anything, in which case, count your blessings and show some sympathy.

Louis X. LeBlanc

For those who didn’t already know, we had a baby! As per tradition, I will write-up my take on how the magic unfolded.

A few weeks ago, Mrs. J and I were talking about writing the birth story. Her sincere hope was that it would read something like “We went to St. John’s and then we had a baby.”

Well, as it happens, that’s pretty much how it went down. In fact, it was probably as flawless a birth as I can even imagine. This bad news for those hoping it would be some kind of insane car chase and anal probing near-miss like with Gus. However, I think it’s good news for us.

On the morning of June 7, I was in a completely unimportant meeting and I got the text saying “I’m having contractions. Not close together and no hurry, but I’d prefer if you came home.” I mentioned that to the guy next to me and word got out. So we managed to rush through the agenda and I was on my way.

Once I got home, there was a lot of waiting around. I ran a quick errand and then took the boys to a play date at a friend’s house. I checked the phone every 20 seconds to make sure nobody had texted, but nobody did. Apparently Sherry was napping and resting up for the hard work ahead.
When we got home from the play date, Sherry alternated between soaking in the tub and napping. I tried as hard as possible to keep the boys from disturbing mom, which wasn’t working very well, since they knew something was up, even if we hadn’t told them exactly what.

Then at some point Sherry decided that her water had broken. Or not really “broken” so much as leaked out. And even though her contractions weren’t regular, they were getting more intense. So we decided it was Go Time. I went to put the boys to bed and Sherry called the person who was going to stay at the house with the boys. That person got there about 9:20 and we finally parked the car at the hospital a little after 9:30.

After the ordeal with Gus in the NICU, we still have bad memories of hospitals and wanted to minimize the amount of time we spent there, without waiting too long and ending up with the aforementioned mad dash down the highway. As it happened, we timed it pretty much perfectly, since right when we arrived at the hospital, the contractions became pretty intense and apparently made walking difficult.
Afterhours they make everyone enter through the emergency room entrance. The hospital is in the city of Detroit and given the criminal nature of many of their ER visits, they make everyone go through the metal detector. Even if they’re having contractions.

I got wanded through quickly. We took the elevator upstairs and as the doors opened, I did a quiet celebration that we once again avoided giving birth in the hospital elevator. Reception was painless and we met Holly, our nurse.

It turns out Holly and our midwife Wendy were in a conspiracy to grease the skids on the hospital bureaucracy. So, given that Sherry was clearly well on her way, and given that we were eschewing the epidurals and the drugs generally, we got to skip triage. For those who don’t know, triage entails filling out a long questionnaire and some 25 year old resident with acne on his face asking if he can check things out “down there”. (Slight paraphrase.)

So at 9:55 we signed our consent papers and walked down to our room. Holly (who is about a month away from becoming a midwife herself) examined Sherry and returned with the verdict: “8 cm and soft”.

Despite this being #4, I wasn’t sure what this meant, so I asked Holly if this meant I had time to get a cup of coffee downstairs or if I should ask around Labor and Delivery. She suggested I ask around upstairs, that things might move quickly.

Wendy showed up moments later while Sherry was relaxing in the Jacuzzi tub. I made some phone calls and apprised some people of the progress. Wendy and Holly talked shop.

Then, about 10:50, I went in to check on Sherry. She said, “I think I might be about ready to push but I don’t know.” We didn’t want a repeat of Sam’s experience where Sherry apparently stayed in the tub too long and had to climb out while the baby was crowning.

I called over Wendy who suggested that we move to the bed. And again, we had timed that perfectly. I grabbed the camera and she pushed about three times, while digging furrows in my hand with her fingernails.

And then, at 10:59, we had a baby! A boy, named Louis Xavier LeBlanc.

So an hour and a half in the hospital, most of which was spent soaking in the tub or getting frisked by security, and then ten minutes of pushing. Other than a baby being born, the whole thing was almost entirely uneventful.

Holly and Wendy’s conspiracy continued on after the baby was born, because they handed him to mom and she got to hold him for the entire next hour, while I took dozens of pictures and made some more phone calls.

Then at some point they did the weigh-in: 7 lbs. 12.2 oz. and 20 inches. Less than Sam, but more than the first two.

I had had some long nights leading up to that, with some last minute work to tidy up. But once the baby was born and the excitement died down a bit, I was left fighting to stay awake. I ended up spending the night with mom and the newest LeBlanc, and relieved the babysitter at about six in the morning, so all boys were entirely unaware of any of the excitement.

The postscript on that is that Louis has O+ blood type, like his mother, and so managed to avoid the ABO Incompatibility and jaundice that struck Charlie and Sam. So the baby got to go home on schedule on Sunday morning. Like I said, the whole thing went perfectly!

And that… is the story of Louis’s birth!

The Sound of Silence

A friend and I were talking about the fact that every time we plug the iPod and/or iPhone into the car, it inevitably plays the first song in alphabetical order. In his case, the first song alphabetically than his is called “Asshole”, which is really embarrassing when the boss rides along.

My first song isn’t obscene, but when you hear it every morning first thing when you plug in the phone, it gets kind of old.

So I decided I’d fix this. So using my trusty copy of Audacity, I created a song that is five and a half minutes of silence, which is enough time for my car and my phone to agree to cooperate with each other, at which point I can change to another song. I named it “a a”, so it shows up first on the list of songs.

And since I’m brimming with generosity, I decided to share it with you folks, in case you have the same complaint. Right-click, save, and add to iTunes

Snobbery

The Mrs. was talking about all the snobbery in Grosse Pointe. It occurred to me that I hadn’t actually encountered much snobbery.

I was trying to figure out how the Mrs. and I could have such dramatically different impressions about the place. There are several possibilities.

It’s possible that her perception is right and mine is wrong, that people are all incredibly snobby and I’m just missing it. However, I don’t think that’s the case.

I have some direct experience in being on the receiving end of snobbery. I have a brief, underreported period in my past when I worked at a Starbucks. (At the time this was the second of two Starbucks in all of Oklahoma. At last count there are 700,000 Starbucks in Oklahoma, so this was a while ago.)

Whatever their other faults, Okies are not snobby people. You would occasionally run across someone with a case of reverse snobbery, looking down on people whose jobs involve pushing pencils and cashing checks instead of honest “real work”, i.e. manual labor.

But overall, people adhered to the adage that all work is honorable. If you had a job, nobody thought poorly of you. You always made way for the guy doing his job, the deliveryman pushing a dolly, the waiter with the tray of food.

That was certainly my experience. Despite certainly being in the service industry, people didn’t look on me as “the hired help”. Although I’m sure I had the novelty of being part of this new Starbucks thing working for me. There were two exceptions, though, of people clearly looking down on me. I remember them vividly and I get tense in my shoulders just thinking about it.

So I have felt the sting of snobbery then and a few other times in the past. I know what it feels like, and I haven’t experienced that sting here. However I’m pretty sure the Mrs. is not wrong, either. I have trouble believing that snobbery doesn’t exist in Grosse Pointe.

No, I think the answer is that we’re both right: she encounters snobbery all the time and I don’t encounter it. So I’ve been trying to figure out is why I don’t encounter snobbery.

There’s a big difference between me out and about in Grosse Pointe and me working at Starbucks #2: when I’m out on my own time, I’m basically in a bubble. I’m probably lost in thought, maybe I’ve got a song stuck in my head I’m singing along with. If I’m interacting with people, it’s entirely voluntary. This is a luxury you don’t have in the service industry. So maybe I’m subconsciously filtering out snobby people from my attention and focusing on the people who are friendly. (We both admit there are plenty of friendly people in this town.)

But there’s another difference between me now and me in my Starbucks days: I’m a completely different person than I was then. I mean sure, deep down I’m the same person, but everywhere else, I’ve changed and almost entirely for the better.

In those days, I had just been laid off, I was living with my younger brother and his crazy ex-wife. I had just given up drinking, for very good reasons that were fresh on my mind. I had a degree in something that people had assured me wasn’t completely worthless and yet, there I was working in Starbucks. My sense of self-worth was really about as low as it got for me.

Since then my sense of self-worth has blossomed to the point that I’d say is almost delusional. And some people would question the “almost” in the previous sentence. I suspect this shows as I’m walking around and affects people’s reaction to me. If you walk into a place like you own it, people start to wonder if maybe you actually do own it. Or at least they second-guess themselves and wonder why this guy is walking around like he’s King Poop of Doo-Doo Mountain.

So maybe people who are snobby in general just aren’t snobby towards me.

There’s really no way to know these things, short of hooking random people up to a polygraph. And if anyone actually from Grosse Pointe is reading this, I’m almost certain when the Mrs and I were talking about snobby people, we were totally not talking about you. We were talking about those other people. You know the ones.

The Problem with Plot

(Note: I talk about Homeland below, and while I try to avoid spoilers — like in the second season finale when you find out that Saul is actually Sgt. Brody’s father — something might slip out.)

So Homeland seems to be cleaning up in the Golden Globes tonight. Coming on top of it cleaning up at the Emmy’s. The lovely Mrs. J and I got caught up with that show over December. Here’s my take:

I remember the first season of Mad Men, when we were watching the Emmys all ready for St. Louis’s own Jon Hamm to bring home the hardware, only to get upset by the dad from Malcolm in the Middle. “Breaking bad?” we asked. “What the hell kind of show is that?”

The answer is: an amazing show. It’s so totally different from Mad Men they’re kind of hard to compare, but after watching, I had no problem with Bryan Cranston winning.

Then last year, after really the most amazing season of TV I’d seen, I was all ready for Walter White to bring it all home, only to get upset by this Homeland show. “Wait, isn’t that what’s her name from My So Called Life? What’s going on here.”

But given our experience with Breaking Bad, we thought we’d check it out.

So I thought the first season was good. Amazingly good. Really some high-quality viewing. Not sure it’s quite at the level of Breaking Bad or Mad Men, for that matter, but I’m certainly not outraged.

That worked out so well, we checked out the second season and managed to get caught up by the season finale, with the shocker when you find out that Homeland is actually a sled. That season was really better than about 98% of all TV anywhere, but there’s an appreciable drop-off in quality. And in discussing this with the lovely Mrs, I think I learned something about TV and why all shows have a limited shelf life.

The writers of the show have an imperative to keep things interesting and throw unexpected things at the audience. The problem is, every time you have some kind of clever plot twist, you introduce a bit of implausibility into the show. Since the reason the audience isn’t expecting it is because it’s something that is out of character on someone’s part. It’s something that violates, maybe subtly, maybe overtly, the overall logic of the show.

Maybe it’s just a straight-up plot hole, like, “Wait, I thought that guy was paralyzed until last season, and now he knows Brazilian Jiu Jitsu? When did that happen?” But usually it’s just something a bit off, where the audience thinks, “Wait, she wouldn’t do that.”

You start piling all those inconsistencies together and eventually people tune out. I think every show does that. But with the action/suspense drama, of which Homeland is certainly an excellent example, the audience is the most interested in being surprised. You need something to show for the preview, after the announcer says “On the next episode of the Emmy-winning Showtime series, Homeland…”

And that’s why those shows tend to lose their flavor pretty quickly. The first season, as I mentioned, was amazing. But that’s because the writers seem to have thought the whole thing through from beginning to end, the pacing, the plot, the characters. The second season was also very well thought out, especially that crazy scene when you find out that Brody is actually a woman (who saw that coming?). But it just didn’t come together as smoothly.

I can’t help but think that the third season will not be as good as the second season, but maybe I’ll be wrong.

As a side-note, this is one of the reasons that Mad Men seems to be holding up pretty well. It’s incredibly slow-moving. Don’t get me wrong, I love to watch it, but sometimes they go three or four episodes with almost nothing happening. There might be two plot twists a season, whereas Homeland has two plot twists an episode.

St. Nicholas

The lovely Mrs. and I decided to celebrate St. Nicholas Day this year, with some goodies in the boys’ shoes, per tradition. However, neither of us knew which day it was. So I looked it up on Wikipedia. The accompanying picture was a 13th century Russian icon.

Николай Чудотворец

Two things struck me immediately about this depiction. Unlike Santa Claus, he is neither A) fat nor B) jolly. In fact, he looks like he may have gone months without cracking a smile. I doubt his laugh sounded much like “Ho, ho, ho”.

Imagine having this guy for a father in law…

On the other hand, if the stories about him are to be believed (and the iconographer certainly would have believed them), he was a very holy man. Take this story, from which we get the tradition of Santa the gift-giver.

There was a certain formerly rich inhabitant of Patara, whom St Nicholas saved from great sin. The man had three grown daughters, and in desparation he planned to sell their bodies so they would have money for food. The saint, learning of the man’s poverty and of his wicked intention, secretly visited him one night and threw a sack of gold through the window. With the money the man arranged an honorable marriage for his daughter. St Nicholas also provided gold for the other daughters, thereby saving the family from falling into spiritual destruction. In bestowing charity, St Nicholas always strove to do this secretly and to conceal his good deeds.

This shows a problem I have with our conception of holiness in the West today. We seem to have one idea of what it means to be Good Person, and it entails being kind and gentle and serene and happy. The Mother Teresa type.

Clearly the person who did this icon had a broader view of holiness. The person depicted here looks both holy and like the sort of man you don’t want to mess with. He might turn the cheek on his own behalf, but he doesn’t look like he would sit by while someone in his flock got his cheeks assaulted.

Frankly, he looks like a thoroughly unpleasant person to be around. Although if we’re going to fight against evil, don’t we need unpleasant people? Don’t we need some people to be stubborn and uncompromising?

It’s a shame our view of being good is so limited. I think we all have the potential to be good and do great acts of goodness. But for some people, being good comes quite a bit easier than being nice or being pleasant. And certainly easier than being serene or being happy. How many people don’t stretch the limits of their inner saintliness just because they don’t see themselves as being saintly?

There’s a reason bishops like the original St. Nicholas are traditionally symbolized as shepherds. And shepherds in the Bible were not Little Bo Peep types. They lived a very hard existence, out in the elements, surrounded by dangers, with no protection for ones own self and your livelihood depending on your ability to protect your flock. They were, in all probability, complete badasses.

Mother Teresa was many things, but she wasn’t a badass. I suspect she would have made a very bad shepherd. And it’s possible that our more enlightened and civilized age doesn’t need badasses any more. Although I think 20 minutes watching cable television will tell you that we’re not exactly enlightened any more (if we ever really were) and 20 minutes watching the Detroit local news will have you questioning how long civilization is going to hold out.

In marketing terms, I think being good just has a bad brand image these days. It certainly isn’t cool, and other than being happy, is there anything in this world more important than being cool?

On second thought, don’t answer that.

P.S. I think “The Holy Badasses” would make a pretty good name for a Christian punk band, should anyone out there feel compelled to start one.